On 6th July 2017 more than 200 delegates from 20 countries gathered in the city of Tampere, Finland, to participate in the 6th Biennial ‘Afroeuropeans’ Network Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe – convened and hosted by the Academy of Finland Research Fellow Dr Anna Rastas (Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Tampere), working in partnership with a team of scholars, artists and administrators from Aalto University, Sibelius Academy, the University of Tampere and the University of Helsinki.
The conference took place over three days, specifically scheduled to also coincide with Tampere’s hosting of the FEST AFRIKA 2017 cultural programme of live music, poetry and spoken word performances by solo musicians, dancers, bands, dub poets and other literary and performing arts practitioners from continental Africa and the African and Caribbean diasporas in Europe.
Keynote Address by Professor Paul Gilroy
The conference’s opening keynote address was given by the internationally renowned social scientist, literature scholar and cultural theorist Professor Paul Gilroy (American and English Literature, King’s College, University of London), who gave a wide-ranging presentation about race and racism, inequalities, border politics, the dynamics and impacts of securitisation, and associated activism to stem the problematic rise of ‘securitocracy’ throughout Europe – titled, “On the necessity and the impossibility of being a black European [a 2017 re-mix] or the value of anti-racism in the ‘Alt-right’ era.“
Through Paul Gilroy’s skillful articulation of what he termed “The Slave Historical Arc” – a tracing of key transitional events, change processes and resistance struggles from the era of transatlantic enslavement through to the contemporary racisms and exclusions imbricated within the political apparatus of our 21st century societies – he was able to explain the emergence of “the impossible condition of being” for black and brown people negotiating the complexities, paradoxes and precarious conditions of our compromised (non-)citizenship in Europe.
Although a substantial portion of Paul Gilroy’s lecture focused on critical analysis of public discourses about race, racism and the rise in hate crimes occurring within the context of ‘Brexit Britain,’ he also addressed a much broader spectrum of contemporary international debates about notions of belonging, sense of place, migration and mobility, demographic change, the rise of populism and the ‘Alt-right’, and the counter-discourses of the political Left in Europe seeking to challenge the drift towards framing culture and constructions of European identity as something fixed, bounded and nostalgically racialized as exclusively white.
An important aspect of the conclusion to this keynote address touched on the growing significance and rapid circulation of ‘unfiltered’ photographic images, captured and shared around the world by ‘citizen camera men/women’ via personal smart-phones and the use of social media – thus democratizing and diversifying the instant reporting of major social and political events. This creation and documentation of alternative images and counter-narratives to the more ‘official’ news stories broadcast via conventional media (such as broadsheet newspapers, the BBC and other international news providers) was seen as a means of circumventing and destabilising the more scripted messaging we have historically been exposed to – often to the detriment of truth-telling.
Two contemporary images in particular were rightly given very close attention – firstly, the tragic photograph of the three-year-old Syrian child Aylan Kurdi, who was pictured face-down and lifeless on a Turkish beach having drowned en route to Europe in 2015; and the equally poignant film footage of the 22-year old Gambian refugee Pateh Sabally, who drowned in Venice’s Grand Canal in January 2017 as groups of Italian onlookers and tourists took pictures, laughed and hurled racist abuse from the canal side without attempting to come to his aid. Both of these narratives provided moments of deep reflection and pause as Paul Gilroy spoke about the need for (what he termed) “a post-humanist humanism,” and a more compassionate future in Europe characterised by “sympathetic,” “empathetic” and “convivial interactions” with our fellow human beings in ways that reject the false binaries of “Us vs. Them” and “Self vs. Other.”
Panel Session on Museums, Galleries, Arts Activism and Decolonisation
My primary contribution to the conference was to propose and chair the afternoon panel session on Day 1 about museum and gallery practices in Western Europe – themed around several of the issues about ‘othering,’ exclusionary practices and alterisation raised in Paul Gilroy’s opening presentation, but specifically framed within the context of museographic pedagogies and practices in Western Europe. The title of the session was “Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation: African and Diasporan Arts Activists Agitating for Change” and featured the following three talks and papers:
(1) ‘Rendered Visible: An Artist’s Response to Museum Spaces in Bristol (UK)’, presented by the British visual artist Ros Martin – who showed film clips and photographic stills from two recently produced installation pieces: (a) “Being Rendered Visible” (2016) – an integrated projection installation (in three voices), narrating and commemorating the life of a formerly enslaved African woman, Fanny Coker (1767-1820), who lived in Bristol during the late-18th century. The piece was filmed and recorded as a reflective walk of remembrance and symbolic memorialisation at Bristol’s Greenbank Cemetery; (b) “I Witness” (2007) – described as a “multi art-form collaboration” developed in 2007 and shown at the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in response to the Bristol consortium of black groups’ veto on the bicentenary commemorations of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. This project also served to commemorate the life and work of Caribbean historian, the late Richard Hart (1917-2013) who was actively involved in the struggles for decolonisation in Jamaica. His biography and achievements are recounted and expressed in this artwork through the performance of songs, dance and poetic monologues.
(2) ‘”On some “documents of Euro-African contact” (MacGregor)’, presented by Dr Mischa Twitchin (British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Queen Mary, University of London). This insightful paper featured a detailed survey and critical analysis of the British Museum’s acquisition, curation and narrative interpretation of African masks and other fine art sculptures exhibited within the African Galleries at the Museum’s Bloomsbury site in London. A particularly interesting aspect of this presentation was the way Mischa critiqued the transitions in the Museum’s institutional practices: moving away from former director Neil MacGregor’s object-focused approach to collection interpretation and display (pursued throughout his directorship, from 2002 to 2015), with each exhibit (and its related documentation) seen as a cultural metonym for “telling history through things” (MacGregor, 2010); and then progressing towards current director Hartwig Fischer’s present-day commitment to opening up the collections to alternative, more dynamic forms of ideas-based, thematic interpretation and critical political engagement with object assemblages (including decolonial perspectives on collection interpretation).
(3) ‘#RewriteTheInstitute and #DecolonizeTheMuseum – Barrel of a Hashtag’ presented by the writer and campaign organiser Simone Zeefuik from the Netherlands. During her talk, Simone discussed the genesis of several social media initiatives specifically developed to help members of the public become more actively engaged in decolonizing the problematic, historically racist and Eurocentric language and display techniques used to describe and exhibit cultural objects sourced from the African continent throughout the colonial era, as well as narratives about former Dutch colonial rule and enslavement history in Suriname and other Dutch-speaking nations in the circum-Caribbean region. A key question posed in Simone Zeefuik’s presentation was to consider how we all (as scholars, artists, educators and activists, etc.) might work more collaboratively to make museums and galleries throughout Europe more welcoming, culturally inclusive, and accessible to young people. Appropriately, this led on to Simone issuing a concluding call to action for long-established and high-profile institutions such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam to “reflect the needs and discourses [esp. as regards issues of citizenship, cultural diversity and belonging, etc.]… of the times we are living in now!”
Artists’ Portfolio Presentations
As an integral aspect of the conference programme, delegates had opportunities to attend a number of panel sessions presented by contemporary visual artists, curators and arts scholars of African descent currently living and working in Scandinavia, other regions of Europe, and beyond. Among the most interesting of these sessions was a panel discussion titled, “Afropean Firsts: Blackness in Cultural Heritage and Visual Arts in Europe” – which featured presentations by the Zurich-born artist Sasha Huber Saarikko (now based in Finland), contemporary artist and performance installationist Jeannette Ehlers (Denmark) and the writer and curator Adelaide Bannerman (Autograph ABP and the International Curators Forum, UK). Each of their talks about recently developed creative projects and works in progress was followed by an equally insightful and engaging Q&A session chaired by art historian Dr Temi Odumosu (Postdoctoral researcher for the Living Archives Research Project at Malmö University, Sweden).
The ‘Firsts’ in the panel’s title related to Sasha Huber Saarikko’s similarly named portraiture series – “THE FIRSTS” – featuring representations of pioneering figures of African descent who came to prominence and achieved key positions of influence and international acclaim within the fields of politics, finance, medicine and the arts. Two of the most notable women and men represented in this series include: Swiss politician Tilo Frey (1923-2008) – the first woman of colour to be elected to Switzerland’s National Council; and the Ivorian-French banker and businessman Tidjane Thiam (b. 1962) – who became the CEO of Credit Suisse in 2015 and was the first person of African descent to lead a Europe-based Fortune 500 company.
Towards the end of the panel discussion Sasha also showed artworks from an earlier exhibition series called “Shooting Back – Reflections on Haitian Roots” (2004), featuring portraits of prominent historical figures associated with Haiti’s turbulent and revolutionary past, represented on wooden boards covered in thousands of reflective, metallic staples.
Sasha’s creative process of applying the metal fasteners with a staple gun was described as an artistic mechanism (and also “a weapon”) for “shooting back” against histories of colonialism, scientific racism, injustice and intolerance established over many centuries. This technique was also re-used in more recent portraiture from the artist’s current body of work – titled, “Shooting Stars” (2014-ongoing) – comprising iconic images of rights activists, freedom fighters, revolutionaries and champions of peace drawn from many nations around the world: for example, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), Amílcar Cabral (1924-1973), Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), and most recently the Pakistan-born Nobel Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai (b. 1997-) who now resides in the UK.
On-Site Conference Exhibition: ‘Afrikka Suomessa – The African Presence in Finland’ (previously exhibited at WERSTAS, The Finnish Labour Museum, 2015)
At the entrance to the conference venue (in the lobby of the Linna Building, Kalevantie 5/Pinninkatu 76, Tampere), the conference’s organising committee presented selected content from the 2015 exhibition “Afrikka Suomessa: The African Presence in Finland.” This one-room display featured photographs, archival documents and information panels documenting information about individual historical figures of African descent from the 19th century (such as Rosa Clay (1875-1959), pictured below on the right – who lived in Tampere in the early 1900s, and who was one of the first people of colour to be granted Finnish citizenship and a Finnish passport), and more recent African diaspora communities settled in Finland over the past four decades of the late-20th and early 21st centuries.
The exhibition also included information about anti-racist activism and campaign work in Finland, with details about some of the ongoing challenges faced by the most recently arrived communities of refugees and asylum seekers as they establish themselves and their families as Finnish citizens.
I was delighted that I had an opportunity to attend this conference in Finland, and to participate in such a diverse programme of stimulating and purposeful lectures, presentations and debates. Regrettably, however, continuation of the Afroeuropeans Research Network and biennial conference series at the present time remains uncertain, as members of the organising committee work hard to secure new academic sponsors, funding partners and hosts for future events due to take place in 2019. Nevertheless, I feel very optimistic and confident that (irrespective of whether the Network continues under the title ‘Afroeuropeans’, or not) these important discussions and scholarly pursuits will – of necessity – be carried forward into alternative forums and discursive spaces through the scholar-activism, creative outputs and determination of many of the attending delegates (myself included!) who are fully committed to continuing this vital research, documentation and curation of exhibitions about the lived experiences of African diaspora communities in Europe.
Further details about the 2017 Afroeuropeans conference programme, speakers’ biographies, presentation abstracts, and the gallery of photographic images taken during the parallel sessions are available online from the University of Tampere website.
FURTHER INFORMATION, ARTICLES AND WEB LINKS:
African Diaspora in Finland – an online entry from the Encyclopaedia of Afro-European Studies summarising the history and cultural contributions of African diaspora communities in Finland, written by Anna Rastas (University of Tampere).
Afroeuropeans Conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe – University of Tampere, Finland, 6-8 July 2017. Main website, programme schedule and archive of presentation abstracts: http://www.uta.fi/yky/en/6thafroeuropeans/index.html
A History of the World in 100 Objects – a survey of selected items from the British Museum’s collections, compiled by art historian Neil MacGregor (former Director of the British Museum, 2002-2015), spanning a timeline of artistic production from the era of ancient Egyptian antiquities created thousands of years ago, through to contemporary artworks like the Throne of Weapons (2001) made by Mozambican artist Cristóvão (Kester) Canhavato. The featured content from MacGregor’s project was also published as a book and presented as a BBC Radio 4 series in 2010.
Dixon, C. A. (2014) Reflections on the legacies of ‘Statues Also Die’ [Les statues meurent aussi] (a film by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker, produced by Présence Africaine, 1953) – the full text of this article is available online at https://museumgeographies.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/
Dixon, C. A. (2012) Decolonising the museum: Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration. Race and Class, Vol. 53 (4), pp. 53-78 . http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0306396811433115